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Hockey: ND looks to finish strong against Ferris State

Joe Meixell | Friday, February 23, 2007

It’s been a long time since unranked Notre Dame plucked then-No. 1 Boston College 7-1 in the second game of the season, but not much has changed for the Irish since that statement game four months ago.

“When you’re winning, [time] always seems to fly by,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said Thursday, a day before his team was set to begin its last regular-season series. “It seems like it drags a little bit more when you’re not.”

The No. 1 Irish (26-5-3, 20-3-3 CCHA) will play Ferris State (12-19-3, 9-15-2 CCHA) at the Joyce Center this weekend in their last two games before the CCHA tournament.

The Irish will also take time to honor their senior class at Saturday night’s game. From the first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in 2004 to a miserable five-win season the year after and right back up to a No. 1 ranking, CCHA regular-season title and a guaranteed NCAA berth this year, the eight seniors – including junior-year transfer Tom Sawatske – have seen the best and worst of Notre Dame hockey.

“This class has got a lot of talent and a lot of character,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t dare compare them to any other class – they’re different in their own right.”

Ferris State is in ninth place in the league standings, but the Bulldogs have a 5-1 record in February, including a 2-1 win Feb. 13 over No. 13 Michigan State. The Bulldogs are in the hunt for the last home playoff spot in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, trailing eighth-place Lake Superior State by three points.

“I don’t want anyone to think that we can afford to take these games lightly,” Jackson said. “First of all, Ferris is playing really well in the last month, and secondly is that there are repercussions in the big picture.”

The big picture that Jackson referred to was the NCAA Tournament field, which is determined by a NCAA Selection Committee based on a rating system known as the PairWise Rankings (PWR).

Notre Dame, despite being No. 1 in all media polls, is currently third in the PWR behind Minnesota and New Hampshire due to a weak strength of schedule that has only gotten worse as marquee teams that the Irish have beaten – like Boston College – have struggled this year.

The PWR are used to determine not only which 16 teams make the Tournament, but also where they are seeded. As long as Notre Dame sits in the top four of the PWR, it will receive a No. 1 seed in one of the four regionals when the Tournament begins.

“Our strength of schedule has killed us, and our strength of schedule is not going to go up this weekend,” Jackson said. “So the only way that we can stay where we are, or move up, is to win.”

In practice Thursday, Jackson bore down hard on his players when they could not break the puck out of their defensive zone – a recent problem for the Irish. Jackson said the defensemen have been tentative with the puck, and the forwards responsible for supporting the breakout down low and on the wings have not been there.

“If anything has come down in our game over the last half of the season, it’s that our puck support is not as good as it was,” Jackson said. “Whether it’s on the breakout, or in the neutral zone, or on the counterattack or on the cycle.”

Irish captain T.J. Jindra recognized that Notre Dame has struggled on the breakout lately, but said this weekend will be a chance to fix any problems.

“Our goal is to be the best we can here at the end and sometimes some things are clicking well and sometimes other things aren’t clicking that well,” Jindra said. “The last couple weeks our breakout has been maybe not that great, but this is another weekend for us to work on it and get ready for the playoffs.”

Jackson has not decided if he will deploy Irish goalie Dave Brown for both games or split time with sophomore backup Jordan Pearce, who earned last Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win against Alaska.

“We’re going to have thirteen, fourteen days off before our next game. So I want to make sure [Brown is] sharp going into the second round of the playoffs – because he’s not fatigued,” Jackson said. “I’ve had no instinct from him, or from what I see, that he’s tired.”

The Irish, who have only lost twice since Dec. 2, will be off next weekend while the fifth through 12th place teams in the CCHA play best-of-three first round series. The teams will all be re-seeded after the round is over, with top-seeded Notre Dame to play the lowest-remaining seed.

The puck will drop tonight at 7:35, while Saturday’s regular-season finale and Senior Night will begin at 7:05 p.m.